TV icon Andrew Zimmern and his team of superstar chefs this weekend take on the restaurant industry rocked by the pandemic and the revolt by chefs, bartenders and wait staff looking for more money and more opportunity for growth and innovation.
Despite the specter of a dystopian future, Saturday was a lively and engaging panel at the Food & Wine Classic.
One panelist mentioned that a 5 percent profit margin is the bare minimum to survive. Stephanie Izzard, the first female winner and owner of several Chicago restaurants, countered by pointing to her new restaurant in Los Angeles.
“Five percent,” she said. “We’d be happy with 1 percent in LA.”
She’s frustrated that downtown Los Angeles apartment and condominium towers are crowded with Gen Xers and Millennials who prefer to stay at home, ordering Uber Eats instead of eating out.
“How do we get them to come out and eat?” Izzard asked.
It was a big unanswered question. However, none of the panelists were ready to give up their love of running restaurants for low-income businesses. They seem to be clinging to restaurants’ better workplaces and destinations with the epidemic of home-eating habits.
The panelists were Izard; Chef Brandon Jew of the Michelin-starred Mr. Jew’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown; Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria; Howard Greenstone of Red Rocks Hospitality, which operates several Nashville restaurants; And Lien Ta, who decided to open her Koreatown eatery in Los Angeles last year after it closed due to the Covid-19 disaster.
She owns and works here and is relying in part on a GoFundMe campaign to bring her bistro back to life. She was excited but surprised that the event, which featured signature cocktails, was so popular that customers lined up in three rows at the bar. Figuring out what attracts people can be as magical and confusing as lightning in a bottle.
She owns another restaurant called All Day Baby. She knows that for restaurants to survive, customers must be kept off the couch and out of doors. Bistros can’t thrive on door-dash offerings alone, in part because planning daily menus is difficult because what people order can be an unpredictable hodgepodge.
“(Delivery) is an informal income,” Tha explained. “People order cocktail jam, a side of bacon and a book.”
For you and other Los Angeles restaurateurs, All Day Baby’s answer to finding homey elements in the doors is to make restaurants feel like home.
“I learn the names of the customers, the names of the 18Th A girlfriend, their dogs and cats that they occasionally bring,” she said happily.
All panelists saw the labor shortage as a crisis.
Izzard said the workers her LA managers had hired were finally close to coming to work. She told them it wasn’t Los Angeles’ problem; It was also a Chicago problem.
Jew says there is a shortage of cooks, as well as problems caused by San Francisco’s crime wave, which has forced CVS and Whole Foods to close in the city. He sadly watched as Chinatown’s longtime gift shops and culinary boutiques closed in his neighborhood.
He has increased the wages of the workers, which with the high quality ingredients he uses, has increased the price of food for the customers.
Zimmern suggested that paying restaurant workers a fair wage means raising menu prices to attract chefs to morale. But “less labor means less hospitality.”
Greenstone saw a more global challenge: training young line cooks to become leaders. Many “amazing chefs don’t know how to manage people,” he says.
Sagaria reminded the audience that the restaurant’s labor shortage was dire and that if an employer didn’t bother to train cooks or food runners, if they couldn’t develop or express their skills, the workers could simply move to another neighborhood and find a new job.
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